Outgoing Arizona schools chief reflects on accomplishments
PHOENIX — After serving two terms on the board of the Peoria Unified School District, Diane Douglas had no plans to run for another position.
“I swore in 2012 I’d never run for another elected office,” she said. “But education has been my passion for a long, long time.”
In 2014, she was elected as a Republican to serve as the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. Her time in office came to an end this past weekend, after losing in the Republican primary race in August.
Kathy Hoffman, a former teacher and the first Democrat to lead the Arizona Department of Education since 1995, is replacing Douglas. Hoffman was set to be sworn in Monday.
On her last day on the job, Douglas spoke with KTAR News 92.3 FM about her accomplishments as the state’s public schools chief, her advice for Hoffman and the education challenges she sees in Arizona.
Douglas said she’s most proud of fulfilling a key campaign promise: repealing the federal Common Core education standards in Arizona. She said that led to significant changes in standards for reading, writing and arithmetic.
“People complain about politicians not keeping their promises, but I was glad we were able to achieve that,” she said.
Douglas said she’s proud of other major changes to the department under her leadership, including ensuring schools get their funding “much faster” — they’re now getting funding in July just as the school year is about to begin, rather than toward the end of the year.
She said she’s also proud to have solved issues dealing with incorrect allocation of Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding to schools as well as ensuring all federal grants are audited “to find ways for better efficiencies.”
Furthermore, Douglas said some education initiatives she’s proud of include securing a federal grant to connect schools in rural communities with high-speed broadband and the Troop to Teachers program to help current and former members of the U.S. military become teachers.
As for what advice Douglas has for her successor, she said: “Take it slow and learn what she doesn’t know.”
Douglas said she recommends Hoffman take several months to understand how the department functions before making any major changes.
“Everybody is very idealistic about this office, and they think they’re going to come in and change education from this office,” she said. “The reality is they’re not because we have so much local control in Arizona.”
She explained school boards have a lot of control over education and said working with them will be critical for Hoffman.
Douglas added Hoffman will face some major education challenges that remain for Arizona students.
“One of the big issues is the quality of education for our children,” Douglas said.
She noted 56 percent of third-graders in Arizona can’t read or write with minimum proficiency, and 47 percent can’t solve basic arithmetic problems.
Another education issue Douglas said she sees: ensuring there’s funding to fulfill Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to give teachers a 20 percent pay raise by the year 2020.
“One of the problems with the plan is that like most of our education funding, it’s economy-dependent,” Douglas said. “So if something happens with the economy, then that may not be able to be fulfilled.”
Douglas said although her role as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction has come to an end, her work in public education hasn’t. She said she planned to take some time off before pursuing another role in education.
“I want to stay in education because I have a little grandson that needs a great education, and I want to see that for all our children,” she said.